At the age of seven I became fixated on learning all that I could about the horrors and sorrows of the Holocaust. As a young Jewish girl, I frequented my synagogue's library and studied every single page, every word, every frail body, and every face. I learned about the persecution that each individual endured, both Jewish and others targeted by the Nazis. It is estimated that 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust. Six million of these people were Jewish, with an estimated 1.1 million of those killed being children. That's when I began having vivid nightmares that I was being hunted by Nazis. My dreams always ended with me hiding underwater, while soldiers fired their rifles at me. I would wake up gasping for air, as if someone had reminded me to breathe.
When I was seventeen and a senior in high school, I moved from an area that was 98% Jewish to a town outside of Washington, DC. where those of Jewish faith were a minority. One of my saving graces at the time was a teacher of mine. He was cool, young, smart, admirable, and "cute" to some of us teenage girls. Then one day, this teacher told our class that the Holocaust never happened. I listened to him, trying desperately to swallow the large lump that was cutting off my airway. At some point in that conversation, I anxiously raised my hand to explain that I was Jewish and that six million Jews had been persecuted in these horrifying camps. He quickly cut me off, telling me and the class that "I was not aware of the facts" and that Jews were "just angry" about being blamed for the death of Jesus. To this day, I think back and wonder if my essay, with dependable references, credible research, and the copies of photographs from books I had copied for his review, ever changed his mind. I can still feel that disappointment; someone I had held in such high regard, pinning his ignorance on his students, those of which he should be inspiring - not exhibiting his closed-mindedness upon.
When my brother was 14, he and my parents moved to a college town in Kansas. My little brother quickly grew tired of the organized prayer at the flagpole, in addition to the countless remarks from other kids asking if "he had horns in his head". Unable to take the ridicule, he transferred to a boarding school out East.
As I look back at these life events that I now see as gainful learning experiences, it is very clear that we as parents and members of a global community have a responsibility to play a very critical role in teaching our children to resist hate and live fearlessly for what we know is right. We are doing an honest action when we send our children to school every day, with no doubt that it is the right thing to do. So many teachers find ways to teach even the youngest of students important life lessons. Inspirational, courageous, and devoted are just some ways to describe those teachers who recognize how important and special they are in the lives of students.
Erica, a girlfriend of mine, recently explained one of her learning experiences to me:
"I was in kindergarten at a Montessori school. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and my teacher invited only the kids with blue eyes to the table for a snack, a table that I did not qualify for, as I am green-eyed. Everyone else, including me, did not get a snack - I cried and cried. A little while later our teacher asked the brown eyed kids to sit at the table - again, I cried and cried. Finally, it was my turn and I found myself sitting at the table, eating a snack and became so happy! Our teacher taught us the lesson about discrimination and how it feels when people treat you differently. She reminded us how important it is to respect one another and that although we may look different, we are all the same. It is amazing how much this lesson affected my life, because I still remember it and always try to treat everyone as equals."
I believe that it is important for us to realize that there are unfair and incorrect influences facing children in schools every day. Erica's story demonstrates our moral obligation to teach our children about the toughest lessons in life, and how it isn't always pretty and it certainly is not easy. We must never forget those who fall victim to hate crime. Whether they are targeted because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or ethnicity - we must always remember that we are all cut from the same cloth. As my good friend Chef Art Smith so wonderfully articulates, "Our world is a large quilt and its people are fabric - colorful swatches of beautifully woven material - all joined together by these common threads: family and food."
Dinnertime is a sacred moment for sharing, learning, and creating those forever-special life experiences. It is a wonderful opportunity to share our understanding, strengthen our communication, pass on the lessons we have learned in our life, and reflect on the past for a roadmap to our future. If we use family meal times as a starting point for open conversations, we can build a foundation of trust and values. Our children need to feel that they always have a parent available who can help make sense of the social and cultural madness they have to navigate. I envision our family dinners together as a wrap-up of the day's events; always ending in warmth, love, acceptance and understanding, no matter the circumstances. I hope that I can somehow find the words to explain to my children that when you do the right thing, you can consciously touch your head to the pillow at the end of the night and breathe easy.
When I wrote my very first HuffPost blog piece, a man wrote back to me explaining how he learned to cook as a kindergartner during the Great Depression. While his mother was in concentration camps, he was responsible for shopping, cooking, and preparing meals for his sister and father. He never once worried about the idea that he would not be able to take care of himself or his family. It was as simple as preparing and sharing meals each day so he could tie his family together as best as he could. He continued to cook as a shared partnership throughout the years.
There are many lessons to be learned in moments from our pasts. Teach your children well and remember that food can be your tool.
Follow Linda Novick O'Keefe on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@Common__Thread